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The Western Wall
Contributed by Stephen Langfur
In {jtips2}"Take heed to yourself that you don’t offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the
place which Yahweh shall choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do
all that I command you."|Deuteronomy 12:13-14{/jtips2}, Moses says that Israel is to have a single center of worship. For
centuries that was the Temple in Jerusalem. After its destruction, Jews prayed toward the place where it had stood.
Since the 16th century, if not earlier, they have focused on a surviving section of its western retaining wall. Those who
visited before 1967 often wept here over the loss of the Temple, and it came to be known as "the Wailing Wall" -- a name
now avoided, for reasons we shall see.
Why was this section singled out as holy?
For one thing, here the ancient stones were exposed and accessible. (The lowest seven visible courses go back to the
time of the {jtips2}When Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, following the Edict of Cyrus (538 BC), they rebuilt the
Temple on a modest scale, dedicating it in 515 BC. This was the Second Temple, following that built by Solomon, which
the Babylonians had destroyed. The modest structure remained in place – desecrated by the Greeks, rededicated by the Maccabees – until Herod the Great won priestly agreement to tear it down and build a grander
version. His structure, then, was the third on the site, but because the process occurred by agreement, scholars refer to
his new version too as the Second Temple. The period of the Second Temple, then, extends from 515 BC until the
destruction by the Romans in 70 AD.|Second Temple.{/jtips2} )
A second reason: other parts of the Temple's retaining walls were also exposed on the south and east, but this western
section was closest to the Jewish Quarter. The latter had been developing on Jerusalem's western hill since the 13th
For centuries, then, this piece of wall has been the main point of contact between the Jewish people and its ancient
To the custom of praying here, a scriptural tradition attached itself. In the Song of Songs 2:9, it is written:
My beloved is like a roe or a young hart.
Behold, he stands behind our wall!
He looks in at the windows.
He glances through the lattice.
An ancient rabbinical commentary adds: "This is the western wall of the Temple, which will never be destroyed, because
the {jtips2}In the first centuries after the destruction of the Temple (70 AD), the Rabbis used this (non-biblical) term to
mean God's presence. By the Middle Ages, especially in mystical literature (kabbala), the shekhinah came to be
personified as a female aspect of God, which had gone into exile along with the Jewish people – divorced, as it
were, from God her husband. By fulfilling the commandments with complete devotion, the Jews could re-unite the male
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and female aspects of the Godhead, thus helping God to restore Creation in accordance with His plan.
|shekhinah{/jtips2} is in the west." (Exodus Rabbah 2,2.)
(In fact, no wall of the Temple building itself remains, while in addition to this western retaining wall, large portions of its
southern and eastern counterparts are also intact. Nevertheless, the rabbinical comment was applied to the Western
Wall, contributing to its holiness in the hearts of pious Jews.)
If we come here in the morning on Sabbath (or on Monday or Thursday, the old market days) we can witness groups of
worshippers reading from scrolls of the {jtips}The word torah or "teaching" refers in particular to the first five books of the
Bible. For ceremonial reading, these are handwritten on parchment in a scroll. Each week on Sabbath Jews read a
section, completing the Torah in a year. A part of the weekly section is also read on Mondays and Thursdays. In
Orthodox Judaism, a quorum of ten Jewish men (a minyan) is required for the ceremonial, public reading. Reform and
some Conservative Jews do not discriminate between the sexes in matters of ritual, but these movements are small in
Israel. |Torah{/jtips}. Many services may be going on at once: a quorum of ten suffices. (A {jtips}In orthodox Judaism, a
minyan – a quorum of ten Jewish males who have undergone initiation (Bar Mitzvah) – is required in order
to hold a full worship service, including the public Torah reading, the priestly benediction, and the recitation of the prayer
known as Kaddish (chanted, for example, by mourners). A biblical sentence, "God stands in the divine assembly"
(Psalms 82:1) led the ancient rabbis to comment that if ten men pray together, God's presence (His shekhinah) hovers
over them. (Avot 3.6). |minyan.{/jtips}) In some of these services, a thirteen-year-old boy will be responsible for the Torah
reading. He is a bar mitzvah, literally a "son of the commandment." By this act of publicly chanting the Torah portion, he
is undergoing his initiation into manhood. It is a nerve-racking affair: He hasn't the vowel signs or the musical notes in
front of him, but older men, who have both in their books, stand ready to correct him. (Is there a "a daughter of the
commandment?" She would be called a {jtips}In orthodox Judaism, which predominates in Israel, there is no special
initiation ceremony for the passage from girlhood to womanhood. In rites of passage, even Israel's non-religious Jews
follow orthodox practice. To try to hold a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall would cause a riot. An Israeli girl
sometimes has a party at the age of 12, but for the most part that is all. In America, where the Reform and Conservative
movements are strong, girls do go through a Bat Mitzvah. Orthodoxy, however, retains the patriarchal character of
traditional Judaism.|bat mitzvah.{/jtips})
The ceremony is not attested before 1400 AD, although the Mishnah, 1200 years earlier, gave the age of 13 as that for
observing the commandments.
On a Bar Mitzvah day, we can see the joy of families as their boys become men. For the last 34 years, indeed, more joy
than wailing has been heard at the Western Wall. The turning point came in June 1967, when Israel conquered the Old
City. Since then the Jews have dropped the name, "Wailing Wall."
Gentiles too may approach the stones. Solomon made provision for the "foreigner" when he dedicated the Temple (
{jtips} 1 Kings 8:41-43:“Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far
country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your
outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according
to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as
do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name.”|1 Kings
8:41-43{/jtips} ). Certain rules should be observed. (See Logistics.)
Since 1929, the Jews have separated women from men here, as in orthodox synagogues. Women go to the right, men to
the left. On any day but Sabbath, one may write a prayer and tuck it into a crevice.
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{mospagebreak title=Archaeology of the Wall}
The Great Walls around the Temple:
Why and how Herod built them (but did he?)
In 2011, archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich dug down to bedrock near the SW corner of the Temple Mount.
They discovered various rock-cut installations that had belonged to buildings earlier than the temple Herod built. One of
them was a ritual bath, miqveh. The builders had filled it, topped it with three large flat stones, and laid the wall's first
course over part of it. The archaeologists of 2011 removed fill from the half of the mikveh that was not beneath the wall's
foundation stones, rather west of them. They found three clay oil lamps that were typical of the 1st century AD. They also
found coins, of which the latest four had been minted by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus in 17 - 18 AD. (For an
account by the Israel Antiquities Authority, see here.) The excavators concluded that this section of the Western Wall
could not have been built under Herod, who died in 4 BC.
This conclusion, which received much publicity worldwide, would imply a post-Herodian date not only for the southern
end of the Western Wall, but also for the royal portico, of which Josephus {jtips}Antiquities XV Ch. 11, Par. 5|wrote,{/jtips}
"this cloister deserves to be mentioned better than any other under the sun." With its 162 huge pillars, each having the
girth of three men with extended arms, it stretched the length of the southern wall (920 feet). We would also have to
redate the Hulda Gates and the grand staircase. All this redating would undermine Josephus' {jtips}Antiquities XV,
Chapter 11, Paragraphs 3, 5, and 6; see also his The Jewish War I Ch. 21 Par. 1|account,{/jtips} for he tells us that
Herod celebrated the completion of the temple, including the royal portico. Finally, one may question whether so huge a
structure could have been built during the rule of a procurator. And why, in such a case, would Josephus have called it
"royal," given that Herod was Judaea's last king? If the portico's funder had been a Jewish ruler, namely, Herod Agrippas
(40 - 43 AD) or his son Agrippas II, surely Josephus, born in 36 AD, would have known as much and would not have
credited their forebear.
Admittedly, we read in John 2:20 that the construction of the temple, which began ca. 20 BC, took 46 years, and
Josephus {jtips}Antiquities, Book XX, Ch. 9, Par. 7|reports{/jtips}that it was completed only in 63 AD, when Agrippas II
had the city repaved in order to provide jobs for the 18,000 workers whom the completion had left idle. (As often with
Josephus, one suspects that a copyist added a zero to his demographic data.) But we have always had these passages,
and they never stopped us from attributing the main structures to Herod, including the royal portico. The question is
whether the coins of Gratus add enough to justify a redating.
These coins, as said, were not found under the wall's foundation stones. In a recent comment, Leen Ritmeyer notes:
"Actually the coins prove nothing at all, as the mikveh only project[s] a few centimeters under the wall. The coins came
probably from a later repair." For instance, the street beside the wall shows no sign of use, so it was probably one of
those that were repaved by order of Agrippas II, seven years before the destruction.
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Given the doubts about the proposed re-dating, I shall continue to assume that the temple's main structures were
Herodian, including the royal portico and the outermost southwest corner. This assumption guides the following text.
When Herod persuaded the people to let him tear down and rebuild the Temple, starting around 20 BC, he designed an
esplanade of 35 acres (144,000 square meters). Thus it could accommodate Jerusalemites and pilgrims by the hundreds
of thousands. In recent times, during the month of Ramadan, 400,000 Muslims have been known to gather on the mount,
which they name the Haram al-Sharif.
Herod's method was to erect huge retaining walls, fifteen feet thick, beyond the earlier ones. Between old walls and new,
the workers stacked vaults, evening the surface with dirt and surmounting all with a platform. Because the new walls
were so massive, the Temple enclosure could serve as a fortress, as it did during the first great revolt against Rome.
Decades after the Romans destroyed it, some group - probably the Romans still - battered down the parts that stood
above the platform. They set their rams inside, slamming outward. On reaching floor-level they stopped. In the
excavation near the southwest corner of the western wall, the archaeologists have left a section of a street undisturbed.
Here we can see the stones of the upper courses lying where they fell.
If we stand in the Western Wall plaza looking east, the seven lowest courses we see (including a fraction of one) belong
to the same retaining wall as the one in the photo above, only further north. They are distinguishable by their margins (as
you can see more clearly in the photo above). The top of the uppermost Herodian course corresponds to the level of the
platform inside, where the batterers set their rams. The four courses above it, lacking margins (see picture below), date
to repairs by the Arabs (Umayyads) in the 7th-8th centuries, when they built the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the
Rock . The smaller stones above these are from later repairs.
In this act of looking, however, we are standing about 30 feet higher than the Herodian street. There are another 19
Herodian courses beneath the current plaza, 8 of them
consisting of dressed stones down to the Herodian street level and
beneath them, not meant to be seen, 11 courses of stones with lumpy
bosses, extending down to bedrock {jtips}In the late 1860's, the British explorer Charles Warren got permission from the
Turkish sultan to dig shafts around the walls. He lowered himself into these, taking measurements and drawing. Just
north of the Western Wall plaza, near Wilson's arch, he dug shafts down to bedrock. The street level has been
established by modern excavations north and south of the Western Wall. See also Max Kuechler, Jerusalem: Ein
Handbuch und Studienreisefuehrer zur Heiligen Stadt, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), p. 170.|(How do we
know?){/jtips} We are standing, that is, in the Cheesemakers Valley (Greek: tyropoeon), which has largely filled with
debris through the centuries. Before the destruction of the wall, its total height (at this point) from bedrock to the top of
the Temple's western porch was 125 feet.
{maps}images/stories/Jerusalem/large_corner_stone.jpg|One of the huge stones in the SW corner|Right{/maps}The
entire western wall, 1590 feet long, formed part of the irregular rectangle composing the Temple complex. The blocks are
of limestone. Most weigh between two and five tons. In the southwest corner, where greater strength was needed, the
blocks are 36 feet long, 7 feet thick and the usual 3 feet high (the height of the limestone strata in the nearby hills). These
stones at the corner weigh about 50 tons each. They continue, in crisscross fashion, beneath the ancient street to
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They are not the largest. North of the prayer space, the archaeologists have dug a tunnel along the entire length of the
western wall. At eye-level with another Herodian gate, in what is called the "master course," they discovered a block that
is 45 feet long and 11 feet high, with a thickness estimated at between 11.5 and 15 feet. They estimate its weight at 570
tons. Nearby is another almost as big.
We do not know how the ancients managed to move these stones or set them so precisely. They had pulleys and levers,
but 50 tons (not to mention 570!) is more than most modern construction cranes can handle. Perhaps they arranged the
work so that they never had to lift a stone: they began quarrying at the level of the building site, to which they built a
ramp; oxen dragged the stone on the ramp, using rollers; after they had set the first course, they quarried from a higher
point and raised the ramp. Yet this, no doubt, is easier said than done! Nor does it account for the remarkable precision.
Why did Herod call for such enormous stones? First, because he wanted to achieve stability without cement. The
Romans had developed a high-grade mortar, using lime and volcanic ash. To get lime they had to burn limestone, and
the fires required a great deal of wood. But wood is and was scarce in this country. People here had developed the craft
of building dry walls. According to an estimate by {jtips}Meir Ben-Dov, In the Shadow of the Temple. Jerusalem: Keter,
1985.|Ben-Dov{/jtips} (p. 89), if Herod had chosen to use smaller stones bound by cement, he might have made it equally
strong, but at the cost of a hundred square kilometers of forest.
Herod had another reason, too, to use big stones. This western wall was a crucial factor in his hold on power. As king of
the Jews, he had a great deal against him. He had usurped the power from the {jtips}The Hasmoneans: family of Judah
Maccabee ("the hammer") and his brothers, who revolted successfully against the Greek Empire in 167 BC. They purified
and re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, establishing the festival of Hanukah ("dedication"). They ruled till 63 BC, and
their domain extended almost as far as King David's.|Hasmoneans{/jtips}. He was a collaborator with Rome, and so his
dominion seemed to contradict the Jewish covenant faith. His Jewishness was greeted with skepticism by his subjects:
his mother was a Nabataean Arab, and his Edomite paternal grandfather had converted to Judaism under pressure.
Herod had, in other words, a problem of legitimacy. He had to cow his subjects into submission. This wall was part of the
Josephus wrote: "... the city lay over against the temple in the manner of a theater" {jtips}Antiquities = Josephus Flavius.
Antiquities of the Jews. Translated by William Whiston. (Abbreviated in text as Antiquities.) |(Antiquities, XV 11.5).{/jtips}
That is, by Herod's time most Jerusalemites lived on the western hill, which is higher than the Temple Mount and slopes
down into the Cheesemakers' Valley. Whenever they looked toward the Temple, then, they would see the western wall -and Herod's mighty stones. Meir Ben Dov describes the effect:
"Even though in objective terms you might be standing at a point level with or even higher than the Temple Mount
esplanade, the towering walls created the optical illusion that the Temple compound was higher still. The further you
descended toward the street bordering the Temple Mount, the greater the sensation of its height: as you walked down,
the mountain seemed to grow higher before you." ({jtips}Ben-Dov, Meir. In the Shadow of the Temple. Jerusalem: Keter,
1985.|Ben-Dov{/jtips}, p. 78.)
Approaching, you would have made out more clearly the enormous size of the stones. Here the margins would have
played their part, enabling you to distinguish them. Herod needed you to feel this awe. Every time you looked toward the
Temple, he wanted you to sense his might and the might of Rome behind him -- and to connect all this with your God.
Having no divine right, he tried to construct it in stone.
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In Mark (13:1-2) it is written:
As he went out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of
Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will
not be thrown down.”
{mospagebreak title=Destruction of Temple}
The Destruction of the Temple: A Historical Watershed
South of the Western Wall plaza, we can visit the excavations. Here we see the stones of the wall's upper courses, lying
on the ancient street where they fell when (presumably) the Romans, standing on the Temple platform above, battered
them down from inside. Doubt has been raised, however, as to whether this occurred during the destruction of 70 AD,
because at the time the stones fell, the street pavement had accumulated a layer of dirt and clay between 3 and 5
centimeters thick ({jtips}Max Kuechler, Jerusalem: Ein Handbuch und Studienreisefuehrer zur Heiligen Stadt, Goettingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007)|Kuechler, pp. 282, 295{/jtips})..
The destruction of the Temple! It is hard today to imagine the full extent of the trauma. It was not at all clear that Judaism
could continue to exist without this institution. Most Jews were scattered among the nations, but the Temple had been
their focus. It had been the only proper place for the sacrifices of thanks and atonement. It had been the main center for
teaching and guidance. Now it was gone. How could the Jews, in dispersion, maintain their identity as Jews?
In the midst of this trauma, the great elaboration of Jewish law began that resulted a century later in the Mishnah and
three hundred years after that in the Talmud -- laws which held the Jewish people together for two millennia without the
land and without the Temple.
But the destruction resulted in another development as well. Judaism, until the moment these stones fell, had been an
outgoing religion. The Jews thought of themselves as a chosen people, chosen for a purpose: to bring the nations back
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to the worship of the one true God. By them, the seed of Abraham, all the families of the earth were to be blessed. (
{jtips}Genesis 12:3:“And I will bless those who bless you,And the one who curses you I will curse.And in you all
the families of the earth will be blessed.”|Genesis 12:3{/jtips} ). This people was to be a kingdom of priests (
{jtips}Exodus 19:5-6:“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own
possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy
nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”|Exodus 19:5-6{/jtips} ). The idea
was not necessarily to convert the Gentiles to Judaism, but to persuade them to give up their idols. That is why the
Gentiles were welcome in the synagogues. After the destruction of the Temple, however, the Jews had to worry about
maintaining their own identity. The mission to the Gentiles went on the back burner, where it has remained to this day.
And one of the things which the Jews felt they had to do was to exclude any groups that could cause division. Such a
group was the sect of the Jewish Christians.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, then, the Jewish Christians could not take part in the Rabbinic revival of Judaism.
Lacking the Temple, they were doomed to disappear, like the Sadducees. This left the field free for the Pauline brand of
Were it not for this destruction, Judaism, the faith of Jesus, and Christianity, the faith in Jesus, might never have
separated as decisively as they did.
The battered stones on the ancient street signify a major watershed in the history of the two religions. From here the two
faiths parted.
{mospagebreak title=Logistics}
Logistics for the Western Wall
1. There is a security check at all entrances to the plaza. Don't bring anything that might be construed as a weapon.
2. Admission to the prayer area is free. To arrange a visit in the archaeological tunnel, which extends northward for the
whole length of the wall, call (02) 627-1333 or Fax (02) 626-4828. There is a fee. The Ophel Excavations at the Davidson
Center, including the southwest corner and the Temple steps, are open for a fee on Sundays through Thursdays from
09:00 - 16:00, on Friday until 14:00 (but they close the area of the Temple steps on Friday at 11:00!). Phone: (02) 6231221.
3. {jtips}Shoulders covered, legs covered below the knees.|Modest dress{/jtips} is required in the plaza and in the
archaeological tunnel.
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4. On Sabbath and Jewish holidays (which start and end at sundown), all work in the plaza is forbidden, including
photography, writing, recording, placing of a prayer in a crevice.
5. Men who approach the prayer area need head-covering. A paper cap is available.
6. Be prepared for the possibility that a beggar may approach you at the wall. Or someone may bless you and expect
reimbursement. There is no obligation.
7. There is no shade.
8. There are drinking fountains and rest rooms.
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